On the Shoulders of Greatness: How Vernon Jordan Inspired us to Lead a Life of Service

by | Mar 11, 2021 | President Message

“I am here because I stand on many, many shoulders, and that’s true of every Black person I know who has achieved.” 

-Vernon E. Jordan, Jr.
This week, we mourn the passing of civil rights icon and power broker Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., who passed away on Monday, March 1, 2021, at 85. Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., was an extraordinary leader, an inspirational individual, and a strong, steady, visionary civil rights advocate. He served as President and C.E.O. of the National Urban League while still in his 30’s and held that position for ten years. Because of his vision, the Urban League system is as strong and impactful as it is today.

Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., was born August 13, 1935, in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in the Jim Crow south. It would be the experience of his upbringing that would fuel his desire to go on to play a pivotal role in the desegregating of education in the south, specifically at the college level. After graduating from the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C., Jordan became a law clerk for Donald Lee Hollowell, a prominent black civil rights lawyer in Atlanta. While working there, Hollowell took on as clients Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter, high school students who were denied entrance to the University of Georgia after graduating as valedictorian and as third in the class, respectively, from Henry McNeal Turner High school in Atlanta in 1959. Vernon Jordan’s exposure to these cases quickly drew him into the importance of a life of public service. Shortly after that, he would serve as the Georgia field director of the N.A.A.C.P. before taking on the role of executive director of the United Negro College Fund in 1970. Following the unexpected passing of Whitney M. Young, Jr., who was Vernon Jordon’s close friend and the President of the National Urban League at the time, the National Urban League recruited him to fill that role, setting the stage for his world-renowned career.

As the President of the National Urban League, from 1971-1981, he led the organization through a decade of change. Creating our ‘State of Black America’ report, Jordan believed it was his duty to uplift Black Americans out of the many crises we continue to face. Expanding our nationwide chapters, he also saw the need to fight to reclaim our right to vote, establish registration drives, and create conflict resolution initiatives between our community and law enforcement.

After heading the National Urban League for ten years, Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. continued to use his platform to uplift the African American community. Serving on several committees and non-profit organizations focused on our advancement, he played an essential role in reshaping diversity within the corporate sector. Vernon E. Jordon, Jr., felt it equally crucial that African Americans have a place in the boardroom and set out to break the color barrier of corporate leadership while still advocating for the civil rights movement. In the years that followed, he advised President Bill Clinton on matters of race and served on the boards of Celanese Corporation, Bankers Trust, American Express, and Xerox. We can find his legacy in his family life and as well. I had the privilege of working with one of his daughters, Antoinette Cook Bush, at the international corporate law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom L.L.P., where we both served as partners. I also had the privilege of working with his son-in-law, Dwight Bush, as ambassadors in the Obama administration. In each case, I could see his strength and wisdom in them as well.

The loss of this great man weighs heavy on our hearts, but it is the spirit of this pivotal changemaker that will undoubtedly lift us in times of hardship. He not only led our movement but paved the way for so many others to follow in his footsteps. We proudly stand upon his shoulders as we continue our fight for social justice and economic equality. Yes, I, too, am a beneficiary of his fight for social justice and economic equality.

On behalf of the Los Angeles Urban League Board of Directors and our entire staff, I offer my condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues in this time of their grief. We will all miss this giant of a man.

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